Cable is unleashing its second barrage of new summer shows and turning up the heat on the broadcast networks.
The Big Four — despite their new reality-based offerings like Dog Eat Dog, American Idol: The Search for a Superstar
and Crime and Punishment
— are already taking a drubbing from cable this summer.
And broadcasters are about to see even more competition, as cable networks from ABC Family to WE: Women's Entertainment roll out original series from now through Labor Day.
In June, for the first time basic cable maintained more than a 50 share in primetime for a full month, according to the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau. Also that month, basic-cable's primetime household ratings increased 11 percent, to a 31.4 from 28.4 a year ago, according to Turner Entertainment Research from Nielsen Media Research data.
By contrast, the Big Four — ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox — were down 10 percent, to a 18.7 from a 20.8.
As a result, cable has already outpaced its primetime ratings growth from last summer, when it registered a 9 percent gain. Last summer, cable jumped to a collective 28.8 rating from a 26.5.
And though the Big Four are still sliding, this June they saw less of a ratings decline in primetime than last summer. Back then, the networks dropped 12 percent to a 19.9 rating, from a 22.7.
Based on how the numbers trended in June, Turner chief research officer Jack Wakshlag predicted that for the full summer, the broadcasters' household primetime ratings would be off 10 percent, with the medium sustaining similar hits in the key, younger demographics that advertisers covet.
"This is easily going to be their worst summer," Wakshlag said.
During the past three years, the broadcast networks have ramped up the amount of original programming they present during the summer. Reality-based shows like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire
have broken out as surprise mega-hits.
NBC in particular made a point of bragging about how many hours of new programming it would slate this summer, including Dog Eat Dog.
Fox entered the summer fray, and now has a hit with American Idol.
But there's still a huge opportunity for cable from June through August, according to the medium's programming officials, because the Big Four's new shows represent just a tiny portion of their summer lineups, which remain dominated by repeats.
"Look at their schedules," said Lifetime Television senior vice president of research Tim Brooks. "It still looks like a sea of repeats. It's so ingrained, this idea that summer is not the time for broadcast networks."
Lifetime has consistently launched original series in the summer, and this year is no exception. On July 21, the hour-long drama For The People
will join Lifetime's Sunday night block of originals.
The broadcast networks' track record with original scripted shows in the summer — forays like Fox's Roar
— "all died terrible deaths," according to Brooks.
"They lost the idea that summer programming has to be different in tone and feel," he said. "Viewers want to see something a little looser, more party-like and open-collared. It's not a time to launch a 24
or a Roar."
with its playful humor, and Survivor,
with its tropical-island setting, succeeded in part because they "fit the summer mentality," according to Brooks.
Officials at Home Box Office and Showtime also like their odds during the summer, and have already launched original series. HBO debuted The Wire,
while Showtime premiered Street Time
and Odyssey 5.
"The big networks still don't have it in their DNA to do a full summer season," said HBO executive vice president of program planning Dave Baldwin. "People are in a summertime mood, an escapist mood, so they come to HBO."
Showtime executive vice president of original programming Gary Levine said: "We still see the summer as a good opportunity. The broadcast networks, for all their noise, they're still not doing any new quality scripted series then. They economically can't do them. So it leaves the field wide open."
HBO debuted The Wire
on June 2, the same night it repeated the last episode of the third season of The Sopranos
and aired the season finale of Six Feet Under.
"What better platform to launch The Wire
than at 10 p.m. that night?" Baldwin said.
USA Network already has a hit in one summer show, The Dead Zone,
which launched June 16. For its first month, The Dead Zone
averaged a 3.8 rating.
Last week, USA debuted another scripted series, the detective drama Monk.
"Summer is a huge opportunity to attract viewers, because their regular viewing habits change," said USA general manager Michele Ganeless.
Like several other cable programmers, USA wanted to get its summer shows on the air as early as possible, in June rather than July or August, in order to have five to seven weeks to get people in the habit of watching their shows.
"We feel the earlier you get in, the better," Ganeless said. "You can build loyalty, and don't bump into the fall season."
WE has already debuted two series —Single in the Hamptons
and Single in the City —
and on Aug. 9, it premieres the extreme-sports program Winning Women. There are a number of reasons why those three shows were all perfect for summer, said WE general manager Martin von Ruden.
He described the two Single
shows as "equivalent to a trashy summer beach read," noting that the summer is "a time when people, philosophically and in practice, shed a few of their inhibitions."
was a natural for this summer, said von Ruden, because it is the time that people are participating in extreme sports, and because it marks the 30th anniversary of Title IX. That federal law, signed on June 23, 1972, leveled the playing field for collegiate women's and men's sports.
E! Entertainment Television has timed the debut of its 11-hour documentary miniseries on Britain's royal family, Royalty A-Z,
to coincide with the end of Queen Elizabeth's 50th Jubilee, said E! executive vice president of entertainment Mark Sonnenberg. It will air over eight consecutive nights, from Aug. 18 to 25.
E! also has a half-hour reality series, The Anna Nicole Show,
in the chute for an Aug. 4 premiere.
The network has been trying to create a series around former Playboy playmate Anna Nicole Smith ever since an installment about her for the E! True Hollywood Story
attracted big ratings, prompting the network to expand it into a two-hour episode that also did strong numbers, Sonnenberg said.
When MTV: Music Television's The Osbournes
hit ratings gold, E! "went on the fast track" to create a show around Smith and her entourage, according to Sonnenberg.
TBS Superstation last week launched the reality series Worst-Case Scenario, based on the best-selling book. The show was ready in January, but TBS opted to wait to run it in the summer, so it could pair it with new episodes of Ripley's Believe It or Not,
according to TBS senior vice president of programming Bill Cox.
There's more of a chance for the show to attract press attention — to get a cover story in a newspaper TV supplement — in the summer, as opposed to in the fall or in a sweeps period when broadcast offers a lot of high-profile shows, Cox said.
also has the right feel for a July launch, because it involves "a lot of stunts outdoors under summer conditions," he added.
Both TBS and fellow Turner service Turner Network Television also use the summer as a launch pad for original movies and broadcast premieres of theatricals.
"The broadcast networks are at a disadvantage in the summer," Cox said. "They have to save their big movies for the sweeps."
Noted TNT senior vice president of marketing Scot Safon: "We've always felt our opportunity in the summer is big, no matter what the broadcasters do. People are very much in a movie mood. There are lots of theatricals out, and our summertime audience is strong or stronger than any other time of the year."
This June, TBS's telepic Atomic Twister
posted a 5.9 rating, making it cable's highest-rated movie — theatrical or original — so far this year.
During the past few years, TBS also garnered big ratings with is summer broadcast premieres of American President
and As Good As It Gets,
which both did a whopping 6.9 rating.
"We needed to make a statement," Cox said.
TNT's telepic King of Texas
was the second-most watched movie on cable in June, with a 4.1 rating, behind Atomic Twister.
TNT likes to schedule an original movie or miniseries coming out of its coverage of the Wimbledon tennis tournament, so it can promote that programming event during coverage. This past weekend, TNT premiered the original movie Door to Door.
Although the summer is still considered fertile ground for cable to launch new series, programmers have also targeted non-sweeps months outside of the summer to successfully roll out shows.
"It used to be the summer was the only window for cable," Wakshlag said. "The window is growing.
"Cable had big hits in the second quarter, with The Osbournes
and The Shield.
Cable networks are seeing opportunities in other quarters besides the third quarter."
USA likes to debut series in January as well as June, said Ganeless. With a January launch, USA can use the holiday season to promote a new series, she said.
TNN: The National Network will premiere two new original series in August: Slamball
"In September and October, it's really hard for our network to launch a new show," TNN general manager Diane Robina said. "In the fall, I can't compete against all that [broadcast competition], and more people watch cable in the summer."
But TNN doesn't limit all of its series launches to the summer. The network plans to create a primetime block of original animation that it will kick off in March or April, according to Robina. April is an opportune time to premiere a new show because there is usually second-quarter ad money available to fully support it, she said.
Premium services HBO and Showtime stressed their need to offer something new and compelling for their subscribers all year-round, not just in the summer.
"The major philosophy for a long time here is unlike commercial TV, subscription television necessitates us having something for our customers 52 weeks of the year," HBO's Baldwin said. "You can't just have a season. You have to have four seasons."
HBO decided to premiere its long-awaited new episodes of The Sopranos
on Sept. 15. They'll bow in the midst of the new fall season, when broadcasters roll out what they consider to be their best new series. The network thinks The Sopranos
can take the heat.
"This is the show that can go anywhere it wants to go," Baldwin said. "It doesn't need an easier summer launch. We feel really strongly that The Sopranos
can take on any comers on Sunday night and prevail."